A VERY MODERN VILLAGE
One, as a rule, should avoid putting one’s life in the hands of teenagers. Clasping the welded metal bar on the back of the screeching, skeletal Chinese dirt bike with blistering hands, I realised, with a defeated sigh, I had.
THE NARROW ORANGE path slithered its way higher into the Dyak Heartland as we spluttered phlegmy globules of oil and clay, negotiated chasmic divots, slid through pools of slippery leaves, and ducked stray branches. For several particularly nerve-shattering sections, there was little room between the handlebars and a precipitous bone-crushing fall into the primordial Bornean jungle below; a dark, thorny place where no one would hear your whimpers.
On one curvaceous and exceptionally narrow section, the back end slid out again. I'm 90 kilos on a good day, a further ten with camera gear and personal effects on my back. As the back wheel juddered toward the reddish edge, I closed my eyes.
The 18-year-old to whom I was entrusting my life managed to wedge a calloused foot down and swing the wailing bike back around, saving us both from a night in the bush tending to rapidly festering wounds. Half an hour later, we reached a small red mud pass. The palpitating engine gave a sigh of relief as it was turned off, leaving us to freewheel down a death slide of clay and loose stones with only my young driver's meaty feet and overdeveloped legs to control our descent into the valley and onward to the village of Pa' Padi. Getting this far had taken some doing, including hitching a ride on a small Cessna piloted by the stoic, yet personable, John from the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF). Say what you will about missionaries, these guys are out there doing it – a not-for-profit organisation and a much-revered vital lifeline for these remote communities. In this ruthless terrain, these guys save lives repeatedly, day in, day out. Flying sick patients, soon-to-be-mothers and various life-preserving supplies from the coast, MAF makes a difference. My better half and I had been waiting it out in the swampy border town of Tarakan, in the northern reaches of Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo, camping in our underwear beneath a fan to avoid the intense, muggy heat. We finally managed to secure two seats on the next flight, which involved me sitting in the co-pilot's seat, trying desperately to suppress thoughts of an emergency landing in one of the brown rivers cutting geometric shapes across the forested shag-pile landscape below.
The steamy green expanse began to ruffle and crease upward, until we were crossing a wild sea of mountain jungles and valleys, bright-clouded peaks and deep river-bottomed troughs. The wispy
clouds of the lowlands had now given way to bulbous white columns swaying above a range of mountains, John deftly moving through them like a waiter in a crowded room. Suddenly, he raised the little Cessna up and pitched the left wing to slip through a gap in the clouds, revealing a fertile plateau below. We spiralled to a textbook landing on a small runway in Long Bawan, the regional hub of the Krayan Highlands of northern Kalimantan.
The Krayan are one of several tribes that make up the indigenous people of Borneo, collectively known as
Dyaks. Former animists (the world's oldest religion, where the belief is that all things – people, animals, plants, rocks – are alive and have a soul), the Krayan have lived in these vast hills for generations. They have a rich history, unrivalled knowledge of the landscape and a deeply-rooted culture that has managed to thrive in this remote, wild and challenging place.
Their traditional homelands straddle both sides of the more recent Indonesian-Malaysian border that slices through central Borneo. This area had played host to many a skirmish, none more famous than the defeat of the Japanese during the Second World War when the Krayan worked with the eccentric and unconventional British officer Tom Harrison and his Z squadron to wage a guerrilla war in the dense local jungles. It's a swashbuckling tale involving plenty of skulduggery and daring do, one the Krayan hold in high esteem; then there's the ingenious construction of a runway built from bamboo (definitely worth a google). Today, the provincial capital of Long Buwan retains a frontier town feel, with a smattering of small shops, corrugated iron churches nestled amongst modest wooden homes, a large football field used to graze horses and host nightly kickabouts and, unsurprisingly, a variety of motorbike repair outfits. The Krayan were friendly and intrigued by our presence; people stopped us everywhere we went, although my pitiful knowledge of Indonesian meant most conversations consisted of animated portrayals of welcome and gratitude, before fading into smiles, handshakes and waves.
We stayed with Alec, a local man, and his family, and ate rice paddy snails, fish, and green spinach-like ferns washed down with boiled smoky water. An entrepreneurial kind of chap, Alec is trying to develop tourism, a new industry for Krayan. He's building a small hotel and attempting to promote his people and their lands to the world, a challenge with limited telephone coverage and one internet connection for the whole region. Alec made arrangements for us to visit his uncle in a nearby village as our transport was due by lunchtime the next day – that, as you already know, was to be an adventure in itself.
Pale, aching and sweaty, we pulled into Pa' Padi. Like some long-lost dream of the Asian idyll, a small village of
no more than forty wooden homes on stilts hunched on a hillside in a narrow valley, with a network of paddy fields covering the valley floor, beyond, forest-covered hills continued in every direction. Communal stands of bamboo fringed the fields, along with sago palm, while buffaloes roamed the water-filled squares of empty paddies, divided from one another by narrow clay walkways and bamboo fences. In the distance, workers moving through the landscape were reflected in the water in the paddies, pigs grunted in sties, and hunting dogs lounged in small packs while cats flicked flies with their tails.
This was out there. There were no roads except the thin jungle we had endured; the village had stood for hundreds of years with everything either hewn from the surrounding landscape or brought in on a dirt bike. This wasn't a time warp, though. The villagers have smartphones, just no signal. There are TVs, just not flat screens. Timber is prepared by chainsaw and food is kept in Tupperware. But these modern technologies serve only to complement a way of life that has changed little.
The Krayan were keen for me to take part in many of their day-to-day activities, most of which involved squelching around in brown water with clay up to my thighs, trying to keep up and not drop anything.
We met up with Jonas, Alec's uncle, who was willing to take us on a small sojourn into the jungle. We enlisted a porter to help share the load and prevent our inevitable demise should we get lost, who upon first meeting, and for the rest of the journey, remained catatonically quiet.
We set off early the next day, walking along one of the many irrigating rivers, making several crossings and working our way further downstream deeper into what Jonas termed ‘forest'. At a fork in the river, we stopped to pick off leeches before crossing to a small tributary stream where Jonas proudly introduced us to his ancestral home. Suddenly it felt different. The forest we'd been walking through to this point would rival most tropical national parks, but this, this was a different realm.
It felt intimidatingly old, like a wise pair of eyes looking through you, dark and fusty. Monolithic trees reached skyward fifty metres or more, holding up the canopy like a leaky, creaky Cathedral roof. Thick, thick, vines and lianas tangled from tree to tree like wooded cobwebs, an understory of dark green that took up every available space. It smelt of death and life at the same time.
One must quickly absorb the brief moments of majesty in a place like this, because before long it will come after you; blood sucking leeches, screaming mosquitoes, marauding flies, swarming bees, flaying hooks, stabbing spines and grappling green tentacles with slicing
epidermises. Everything will attempt to make use of you, to glean some genetic advantage over their brethren. We trekked until mid-afternoon, at which point Jonas and Uno the mute porter set about making camp. There is no greater way to deflate the delicate male ego than to watch the speed, dexterity and brute strength of two Dyaks making a jungle camp. In less than an hour of flailing perangs (a type of machete), food, shelter, water, bed, cutlery, mattress hammocks and dry firewood had all materialised from the forest, during which time I'd managed to assemble a small stack of lightly smouldering twigs.
We spent three days in the bush, waking daily to the morning gossip of gibbons, spotting hornbills and countless other creatures of wild design and incredible variety, including an alarmingly well-camouflaged snake, dead from natural causes, as was almost the case for me when I saw it. Jonas took us to a tree, known to his animist grandfathers as sacred, the magnificence of which isn't expressible by the vehicle of prose, nor the vehicle of normal comprehension for that matter. I have no idea how old it was, or big, or beautiful, or how many species it supported.
We emerged from the jungle lumpier and scabbier than before, yet revitalised, and joyful that places like this still do exist, where nature can be left in her quiet splendour side by side with people who call her home, and that in our brave new world there are still places you can lose yourself.
The temptation is to frame Pa' Padi as some idealised parable of paradise, a throwback, an untouched bubble where the ravages of the modern world haven't encroached. It isn't. There are squabbles and hierarchies, aspirations, inequalities, instances of cruelty, gossip and all the fundamentals of the human condition. In fact, it was, by accident or design, a very modern village, a place with enough autonomy for its residents to make their decisions, the ramifications of which they must live with; unlike our own, where degrees of separation insulate the decision-makers from the consequences of their actions.
Out there, close to the wilderness and far from help, pragmatism is king. Resources are managed because if they're not, all will know hunger.
The forest is respected, because if it isn't, all will suffer. People work each other's land because it benefits them individually and as a whole. People take what they need, and little more. Make no mistake, life there is tough and precarious, but so it is in many places. Unlike many parts of the world, where the ability to self-subsist and govern has long been sold to the highest bidder, the residents of Pa' Padi still, for now, control their futures.
From Pa'padi at least, it appears it is us who are living the past.
We boarded the weekly overloaded Indonesian plane and as we flew back down to the swamps of coastal Tarakan I could see the ‘modern' world wasn't far away. Now living in New Zealand, curiosity got the better of Dan Kerins long ago, setting a course to specialise in ill-planned and underfunded excursions into the lesser known for the best part of two decades, always with camera in hand. To this day travel remains a deep passion and photography a complementary obsession.
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